Rand Paul's big foreign policy test: Can he beat back the Iran hawks?

Presidential contender dings rivals' support for tougher approach. How he could signal a larger shift

Published January 26, 2015 6:00PM (EST)

  (Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Unlike his reflexively anti-interventionist father, Rand Paul cannot be easily pigeonholed on foreign policy. Once a fierce Iraq War critic who charged that the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein to benefit Halliburton, a company once helmed by Dick Cheney, he also crusaded against a ground war in Syria, declaring he would not "send my son into that mess." But as he moves toward a 2016 presidential bid, the erstwhile critic of intervention in Syria also backed air strikes against the Islamic State militant group there, and reversed his longstanding opposition to foreign aid for Israel, abandoning a stance that was anathema to the GOP. Although his father's associates have voiced disturbingly conspiracy-minded views concerning the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Paul has staked out a firm position against Russian aggression, indicating that his generally anti-interventionist impulses apply to more than just the United States.

So it may be hard to neatly classify Paul a hawk or a dove, even if there's an undercurrent of skepticism about U.S. intervention that defines his foreign policy approach. And there's little doubt that some of Paul's policy reversals -- chiefly his newfound support for Israel aid -- are borne of political cynicism, pure and simple. His most fervent supporters may insist otherwise, but Paul is a politician like any other -- driven by a mix of sincere conviction and shrewd calculation.

That's what makes Paul's approach to Iran particularly noteworthy.

In 2013, members of Congress could have opposed the administration on Syria from a number of directions -- the administration's effort to oust Bashar al-Assad with an air campaign was too little, too late; deposing Assad would embolden even more unsavory cast of characters; the White House failed to articulate a clear rationale for why removing Assad served a vital interest. For some Republicans -- including those like Marco Rubio who had earlier endorsed actions similar to what the White House ultimately proposed -- the dreaded Obama stamp of approval was apparently cause enough for a flip-flop.

But Iran presents policymakers a simpler set of choices.

On the one side is the international community, backed by the so-called P5 + 1 negotiators, a group including diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France , and Germany, who are working ahead of a June 30 deadline to hammer out an accord on Iran's disputed nuclear program. On the other side are bipartisan American skeptics, including Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who want to vote on a crippling new round of sanctions against Iran before the June 30 deadline. Although sanctions would not kick in until after June 30, arms control experts and international officials warn that a vote would convey to the Iranians that the U.S. is not negotiating in good faith, and may also fracture the multilateral coalition by alienating countries like Russia and China. The skeptics have a powerful ally in their corner: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is slated to address Congress on the subject next month, just a month before his right-wing government faces a potentially close re-election challenge.

Netanyahu's forthcoming speech provides Republicans further opportunity to assail a president they've obstructed at every turn, while further lionizing a man who has shown no serious interest in forging a Mideast peace, whether with his Palestinian neighbors or vis-a-vis Iran. But Paul isn't jumping on the anti-diplomacy bandwagon -- and he's coming hard after fellow Republican senators whom he sees as too eager to scuttle a potentially historic accord with Tehran.

“I’m a big fan of trying the diplomatic option as long as we can,” Paul told a Koch brothers-sponsored forum this weekend, per Think Progress' Igor Volsky. “I do think diplomacy is better than war.”

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), like Paul a potential presidential aspirant in 2016, warned that an Iranian bomb could hit “Tel Aviv, New York or Los Angeles,” with Rubio, another potential candidate, warning “At this pace, in five years, we’re going to build the bomb for them.”

Paul had tough questions for such hawks.

“Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops?” he asked. “I’m a big fan of trying to exert and trying the diplomatic option as long as we can."

Paul added that he would support a new round of sanctions against Iran if the talks failed to produce an agreement between the the U.S. and Iran, whose leaders maintained a 35-year silence until President Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rohani in 2013.

“But if you do [vote on sanctions] in the middle of negotiations, you’re ruining it,” the senator added.

Besides Paul, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is another Republican who has backed the administration's position that no vote should take place before June 30. Although Kirk and Menendez have previously garnered broad, bipartisan backing for a sanctions vote concurrent with international diplomatic efforts, their sanctions push has bled Democratic support amid fierce resistance from the Obama administration. It was never clear that Kirk and Menendez would have the votes necessary to override the president's promised veto, and Politico reports that several hawkish Democrats who had backed a sanctions vote are reevaluating their positions after listening to pleas from officials like Obama and Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron.

As for Paul, the senator's willingness to allow diplomacy to work its course underscores that he has not cynically abandoned all of the foreign policy views that first attracted many followers to his camp. The real test of the senator's commitment to a new foreign policy will come if the June 30 deadline comes and goes without an final accord -- a development that may well have advocates like Cruz, Menendez, Kirk, and Rubio beating the drums of war.

By Luke Brinker

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